Everything’s warmer this winter in Delhi, even a dengue discussion. For years Navin Khanna has studied dengue and other infections with a quiet purposefulness. As he settles into the cane chair, at the faculty lounge and boots up his MacBook, the academic aloofness of the place recedes. In the 26 years that Khanna has been at the International Centre for Genetic Engineering and Biotechnology (ICGEB), he has developed 26 diagnostic kits; 23 of which are in the market.

“It wasn’t mathematics,” he says, with a dismissive laugh. “India is the epicentre of dengue but we under report it. I have suffered from dengue, it can be fatal.”

Come July every year, dengue affects even the non-infected. A constant fear of the disease at the slightest warming of the body lurks in most households. Not the infection but more so, its detection. Most pathology labs still take anywhere between 48-72 hours to report results, which is a long duration for the disease to either turn fatal or fleece the patient in hurried hospitalisations. The fact that there’s now a Day-1 test which can detect infection and its extent on the very day a person gets a fever is just about reaching patients. Still early days, though.

At ICGEB, Khanna developed this three-in-one test which is the only diagnostics of its kind in the world. And it started with a missive from the late President APJ Abdul Kalam, also a former chief of the Defence Research Development Organisation (DRDO).

‘One more try’

Sometime in 2006, DRDO came knocking on Khanna’s door to check if he worked on dengue. The defense centre in Jhansi was unable to battle the disease and Khanna by then had developed a dozen or so diagnostic kits for various infections. Since he had no readymade technology for dengue, he refused. Then, he received a letter from Kalam. It was basically an S.O.S. Dengue was a national priority; refusal wasn’t an option.

But as soon as Khanna developed the test, he had a dilemma at hand. Anything done for DRDO was a closed affair whereas being at ICGEB meant sharing every tech with 60+ member countries, including Pakistan and Bangladesh. Khanna and team had to give it another try—a completely new technology avoiding infringement on his own patent on the previous test. “We realised just doing a dengue antigen or dengue antibody test won’t be enough. So we developed a three-marker test,” says Khanna, group leader at the Recombinant Gene Products Laboratory.

That’s important in a country like India where you can get dengue several times because there are four types of dengue virus—leading to four serotypes. (Serotypes are a class within an organism based on the antigens they produce.) A person generally recovers from primary dengue unless the virus load is very high.

AUTHOR

Seema Singh

Seema has over two decades of experience in journalism. Before starting The Ken, Seema wrote “Myth Breaker: Kiran Mazumdar-Shaw and the Story of Indian Biotech”, published by HarperCollins in May 2016. Prior to that, she was a senior editor and bureau chief for Bangalore with Forbes India, and before that she wrote for Mint. Seema has written for numerous international publications like IEEE-Spectrum, New Scientist, Cell and Newsweek. Seema is a Knight Science Journalism Fellow from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a MacArthur Foundation Research Grantee.

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